Why do we need UD features in housing?

House half built showing timber framework. We need UD features in housing.To answer the question: because it will benefit all Australians. Universal design features are easy to implement, and largely cost neutral. The two Royal Commissions related to aged care and disability care found that inaccessible housing prevented people from remaining at home and living independently. That’s why we need UD features in housing. However, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions in this space. 

Universal design is about creating resilient, flexible and sustainable housing. These features will increase general amenity and allow people to age in place. For people with a disability, it will allow them to live independently. 

A line of complex manufacturing machinery used to show the complex process and number of stakeholders involved in mass market housing.It has to be regulated across the housing building system so that the process stays efficient. There are too many stakeholders to consider in one-off exceptions. Basic access features are now included in the 2022 edition of the National Construction Code. To date, not all states have adopted these features. 

Jane Bringolf addresses some of the common myths and misunderstandings in her article, Why do we need universal design features in all new housing?  Myths and comments include:

      • only a few people need it
      • I’ll worry about it when the time comes
      • it costs too much
      • it will look like a hospital

Why homebuyers don’t get universal design

A banner advertising home and land packages. It says, "for people who want more".“We will build it if they ask for it” say the builders. But do they want home buyers to ask for it? And would they build it? The new home selling process relies on capturing the client’s personal and emotional commitment to the home before they sign the contract. And how do they do that? By getting them to choose the colours and styles of fixtures and fittings first. Once that happens the client becomes emotionally committed. The sale is made. Too late to consider universal design features – even if customers knew what they were.

This insight comes from an article in Sourceable by Darren Love. The title of the article is, Responsibility before Profit. It critiques the selling methods that builders use in this highly competitive market where cost cutting is part of the process. The article clearly explains why we cannot rely on the mass market housing industry to offer anything more than a choice of colour and upgrades to fixtures and fittings. 

Universal design in housing: The time has come

House half built showing timber framework. Universal design in housing. The time has come.Time has come for the housing industry to catch up with the rest of society. Inclusion and diversity are now recognised as Australian values. Discrimination still exists of course, but many sectors, business and government, are striving to do better. That means designing products and services to embrace population diversity. However, the housing industry continues to resist change. They say it will substantially increase the cost of building a home. But how much is “substantially”.

Smaller building firms have shown that for a maximum of $3000 they can deliver universally designed homes. That’s because they thought of the design from the outset. They have changed the cookie cutter shape.

One of the reasons the housing industry says it will cost more is because level entry is difficult to achieve on a steep slope. This can be true, but that is no reason for no change at all. Exceptions would be made for one-off situations. Besides, mass market housing in a greenfield site is rarely on a steep slope – these are not favoured by developers. That’s because it cuts down on building efficiency. But any excavation needed benefits builders too.

The evidence

Two eminent economists responded to the call to comment on the draft changes and have concluded that benefits outweigh the costs. Dense reading but the document challenges the ABCB analysis at every point. They also conclude that Gold level of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines are not only beneficial to the community but they offer the best value overall. 

Australia Cannot Afford NOT to Build Accessible Homes, gives an overview of why we must mandate universal design features now. We’ve had ten years for Livable Housing Australia to show that it can do this voluntarily. It has failed. It’s time for them to come good.

For the history of nearly 20 years of advocacy see Universal Housing Design in Australia: Getting to Yes.

 

UD in Housing: Does it really cost more?

Facade of a large two storey home commonly called a McMansionDo homes really have to be larger to incorporate universal design features? Unlikely says Kay Saville-Smith, a housing researcher from New Zealand. In her keynote address at the UD Conference in 2014 she explained why. Her presentation discussed the “size fraud” and the mistaken idea that homes need to be larger and therefore more expensive. She also referred to the “blame game” where nothing changes because no-one takes the first step. Below is an excerpt from the full transcript of her presentation, Making Universal Design a Reality – Confronting Affordability.  

“Builders like to talk about cost per square metre so the larger the living space, the cheaper the perceived cost. Although the floor space need not expand to bring in UD features, it is believed that you do. So people say they won’t pay for that – or more to the point the builders say that”.

She goes on to say, “…there are still the two old barriers to renovating and building homes with universal design and indeed the streetscape, and those two things are twofold. One is what I’ve talked about in the past as the vicious cycle of blame that goes on in the building industry, which is no-one wants to change to do anything because the other person hasn’t asked them to do it. Investors don’t want universal design, so I the builder can’t build that, but if investors want it, sure I will build it. Investors will say I can’t build it because the builder won’t come in at the right cost, and both of them blame the architect, of course, because the architect is off site at that point. So that is one issue.

The other issue is that we have the “innovation chasm” where we have solutions but getting them taken up and getting to a tipping point where it’s an expectation of what you get out of the housing market, is a big jump and typically you need about 30% or so of the market to be taking that kind of innovation challenge rather than taking the opportunity to be an early adopter. 30% is a big jump…”  

Housing: what theory and what research?

facade of an apartment building showing long balconiesThree academic articles come together for an intellectual tussle on housing theory and policy. David Clapham claims that there is a divide between researchers who focus on policy and those who focus on theory, and he asks where theory for housing research should come from and what it would look like. Hannu Ruonavaara, poses four positions about housing related theory: Is it possible to have one theory for all housing related research?; is it desirable to have one?; should we scrutinise housing as a special activity and experience?; and can we construct a theory about the relationships between the housing system and features of society?  Manuel Aalbers, who in his article, asks What kind of theory for what kind of housing research? responds to both academics. He discusses the pros and cons of their arguments. The point about housing research being largely for the audience of other housing researchers is well made. He believes it is more important to demonstrate the relevance of housing research to other social scientists. More importantly it needs to influence policy. Not light reading, but fascinating if you are a housing researcher or interested in housing policy. 

Housing Challenges Past and Future

House half built showing timber frameworkFrom the US another article that supports universal design in housing. To give context to the current challenges, it covers the history of housing from the Great Depression through to the current day. It poses the same arguments for (non) cost of universal design, and the imperatives for it. An interesting point is that there are now more Millennials than Boomers in the US and they will be the future drivers of the housing market. The article concludes that with declining home ownership rates, “Two solutions on the supply side are Universal Design and Accessory Dwelling Units, neither of which are currently supported by public policies. To increase wealth building and economic mobility in the short, middle, and distant future, local, regional, state, and national policy makers may want to focus on these and other innovative strategies.” Graphs help with explanations of statistics.

The article is on page 24 of the Realtor University publication, The Journal of The Center for Real Estate Studies. The article is titled, Past, Current and Future Housing Challenges in the United States. There are four other articles that might be of interest, rent growth, millennial home ownership, manufactured homes, and real estate investment. The text is not easy to read and is in two column format. 

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